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  • Writer's pictureAdriana Santamaria Duthon

“The uses of history in international society: from the Paris peace conference to the present”

The article, “The uses of history in international society: from the Paris peace conference to the present,” written by M. MacMillan and P. Quinton-Brown seeks to address how history ‘has increasingly been seen in this century and the last as a legitimate source of authority’[1]. In order to assert this, the authors describe the ways history has been used in two specific moments: at the end of the First World War, mainly during the Paris Peace Conference of 1919, and in recent episodes of the Cold War and Post-Cold War era, mainly during the Non-Aligned movement in 1961. This article attempts to create a comparative setting around the teleological use of history in International Relations, but also seeks to underline how the past has affected the behaviour of states and of other accepted forms of authority in the international theater[2].


The first theme in this article is centered on the paramount role of history in rebuilding Europe after the First World War. During the Paris Peace Conference held in 1919, the peacemakers ‘understood that they were dealing with an unprecedented range of problems in a new and uncertain world’[3]. The authors affirm that this period was known for acute claims of restitution and articulated national identity movements. The main issue in 1919 was centered on historical events and border legitimation, which explains why peacemakers ‘accepted the validity of history as a basis for territorial claims’[4]. Having considered this situation, the authors raised an important question: ‘was the older historic claim the most valid?’[5]. This observation reinforces the notion that people have an essential character which travels unchanged through time[6]. However, even after the signature of the Pact of Paris in 1928 and the outlaw of aggressive war and conquest, history and self-determination were still acknowledged as a base for territory claims. The second part of this article concentrates on the role of history as a foundation for diplomacy in reaction to independence and secession movements during the Cold War era. The shift was marked by the unlikely possibility of modifying the existing borders and the likely need for ‘transforming the membership of international society in other ways’[7]. Consequently, history was particularly used to create a shift in the status-quo of the international society in order to seek a common historical experience. MacMillan and Quinton-Brown illustrate this by referencing the emergence of the Third World during the ‘newly forged cross-continental identity[8]’ throughout the era of decolonization. During the Non-Aligned Movement of 1961, states were once again using historical arguments to deliberate what was legitimate or illegitimate, legal or illegal, in regard to the management of statehood in international politics[9]. In fact, as liberation movements gained strength internationally, ‘the mingled use of self-determination and history reached a sort of apogee when it was applied to validate violence.[10]’ The authors support their thesis by explaining how history was used to construct the concept of a ‘world order’. This is illustrated by the cases of dividend requests and economic policies that followed the Post-Cold War era. They conclude with the idea that ‘history plays many roles in international society and the practice of politics[11]’ and that this use of history has ‘continued to justify a whole series of identity wars and […] has also been used in the rare instances of military invasion and annexation in the past 30 years.[12]


Although the use of history in International Relations varies according to time, space, and ideology, MacMillan and Quinton-Brown effectively communicate a comparative narrative of history within two diverse, yet important, moments of international history. By introducing their arguments, the authors illustrate how history affects the political behaviour of states, as well as the accepted forms of authority in the international theatre. In fact, the evidence presented in this article confirms the relevance of two contemporary academic debates. First, it validates the idea that the instrumentalization of history is unavoidable. This means that ‘historical events can be manhandled to seemingly deliver lessons and solutions to apparently intractable contemporary problems[13]’. By comparing the uses of history in international society, the authors illustrate that there is a possibility history has a teleological component allowing it to be used repeatedly in international deliberations regarding the legitimacy of political behaviour and authority. In fact, both study cases show that historical contexts were used to learn from the past in order to avoid or modify future actions, such as the 1919 territorial claims and border modifications, or the necessity of a new international economic order during the Cold War. The second debate the authors confirm stipulates that culture plays a crucial role in the way history is used. This revives the academic discussion surrounding the ‘western way of warfare’. Both examples pursued in this article illustrate how history has been used to maintain a status quo, where both ‘peacemakers’ and the ‘West’ have legitimised their authority over the ‘losers’ and the ‘South’. This historical argument puts Hanson’s criticized theory in the spotlight, as it asserts that the West has a ‘unique and continuous military culture that is dependant for much of its character on a societal and political culture that is equally unique and continuous.[14]’ Moreover, ‘because cultures are a semi-permanent force of beliefs and norms rooted in the past, they usually change only slowly or at critical junctures, and lag behind changes in surrounding conditions’[15]. Thus, history and culture have created ‘a sphere of practical activity shot through by willful action, power relations, struggle, contradiction, and change’[16].


While these concepts confirm the need to further inquire about the role of history in international relations, the authors did not consider the role of ‘bottom-up’ dynamics, meaning the role of socio-political change as a determinant on how history has been used. This factor is paramount because ‘mobilization may shape the power and preferences of societal actors and may structure postwar debate in ways that can advantage particular policy stances’[17]. The role of society was crucial in the use of history as it legitimized the State’s authority. This was illustrated in 1919 when the ‘allied publics and their statesmen felt strongly that the defeated must pay up[18]’ or when the Third World brought forward a common narrative about ‘decolonization, histories of imperial exploitation and stolen destinies’[19]. The latter example was specifically important in the Post-Cold War era since ‘spin-off conflicts emerged because the systemic or the sub-systemic Cold Wars produced the conditions or the means for their occurrence’[20]. As we navigate through a globalised 21st century, socio-political change is relevant more than ever because ‘recent changes in both war and democracy may limit how lessons from the past apply to the future’[21].


The indisputable value of this article relies on the authors’ ability to illustrate the use of history to legitimate authority and political behaviour. By raising a number of historical facts, they indirectly emphasize the importance of more general academic debates, mainly the one related to the instrumentalization of history and the role of culture in accepted forms of authority. Because ‘our interest in history always reflects our own times[22]’, this article raises an important philosophical debate: the teleological use of history.


[1] Margaret MacMillan and Patrick Quinton-Brown, “The uses of history in international society: from the Paris peace conference to the present”, International Affairs, 95, No. 1 (2019): 182. https://doi.org/10.1093/ia/iiy238 [2] Idem, 199. [3] Idem, 183. [4] Idem, 187. [5] Idem, 189. [6] Ibid. [7] Margaret MacMillan and Patrick Quinton-Brown, “The uses of history in international society: from the Paris peace conference to the present”, International Affairs, 95, No. 1 (2019): 182. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1093/ia/iiy238 [8] Idem, 191. [9] Idem, 192. [10] Idem, 193. [11] Idem, 197. [12] Idem, 198. [13] Huw J. Davies. “The instrumentalization of History”. Defence in Depth. Accessed April 17th, 2021. https://defenceindepth.co/2014/09/30/the-instrumentalisation-of-history/ [14] John A. Lynn, Battle: A History of Combat and Culture (New York: Basic Books, 2008), 13. [15] Patrick Porter, Military Orientalism: Eastern War Through Western Eyes (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011), 9. [16] Idem, 14. [17] Elizabeth Kier and Roland R. Krebs, eds., In War’s Wake: International Conflict and the Fate of Liberal Democracy (New York, Cambridge Press, 2010), 10-11. [18] Margaret MacMillan and Patrick Quinton-Brown, “The uses of history in international society: from the Paris peace conference to the present”, International Affairs, 95, No. 1 (2019): 184. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1093/ia/iiy238 [18] Idem, 191. [19] Idem, 191. [20] Lüthi M. Lorenz, “The Non-Aligned Movement and the Cold War, 1961–1973”. Journal of Cold War 18, no.4 (2016): 101. DOI: https://doi-org.libproxy.kcl.ac.uk/10.1162/JCWS_a_00682 [21] Elizabeth Kier and Roland R. Krebs, eds., In War’s Wake: International Conflict and the Fate of Liberal Democracy (New York, Cambridge Press, 2010), 3. [22]Steven Erlanger, “A War Is Long Over, but Many Still Seek to Learn Its Lessons”. The New York Times, September 9th, 2014. Accessed April 19th,2021. https://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/09/books/margaret-macmillan-discusses-causes-of-world-war-i.html.


Bibliography


Books


Kier, Elizabeth, and Krebs, Ronald R., eds. In War’s Wake: International Conflict and the Fate of Liberal Democracy. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010.


Lynn, John A. Battle: A History of Combat and Culture. New York: Basic Books, 2008.


Porter, Patrick. Military Orientalism: Eastern War Through Western Eyes. New York, Columbia University Press, 2010.


Journal articles


Erlanger, Steven. “A War Is Long Over, but Many Still Seek to Learn Its Lessons”. The New York Times, September 9th, 2014. Accessed April 19th,2021. https://www.nytimes.com/ 2014/09/09/books/ margaret-macmillan-discusses-causes-of-world-war-i.html


Lorenz M. Lüthi. The Non-Aligned Movement and the Cold War, 1961–1973. Journal of Cold War Studies 2016; 18 (4): 98–147. doi: https://doi-org.libproxy.kcl.ac.uk/10.1162/JCWS_a_00682


MacMillan, M. & Quinton-Brown, P. “The uses of history in international society: from the Paris peace conference to the present, 181-200”. International Affairs 95 (Jan 2019). https://doi.org/10.1093/ia/iiy238


Web pages


Davies, Huw J. “The Instrumentalisation of History,” Defense in Depth (blog), September 30th, 2014, https://defenceindepth.co/2014/09/30/the-instrumentalisation-of-history/. Accessed April 17th, 2021.

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